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Portrait of Edith Wharton, photographer unknown. From the collection of the Library of Congress.

Although on the surface Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence and Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club may not seem to have much in common, each novel is---in its own way---an investigation of the tension between the old ways and the new, between obeying the rules and breaking them. Who belongs and who doesn't? Here's what Tan has to say about why Wharton's classic novel still feels current nearly a century after it was first published.

For me, The Age of Innocence has a lot to do with culture and society, and how we behave and conform so that we belong. It?s also about the ways in which others think we don?t belong, because of perhaps who our parents are, or how we dress or who we know, or how popular we are among others. . . .[W]e?re all concerned at some point in our lives about belonging. We?re especially concerned when we feel that we don?t belong, when a group of people has not accepted us, and you don?t quite know why. It wasn?t maybe necessarily anything you did, but to not belong is a huge threat, I think, to your existence. And you especially experience this in grade school and junior high and high school, and also when maybe you?re the new kid on the block, as I often was, because our family moved just about every year. In situations like that, you feel that someone decides whether you belong or not.  And it may be because you wear plaid and not stripes, or you're friends with somebody who others don?t like. 

Often the rules and requirements are understood, but not spoken about. People notice why you?re less than they are, but they don?t tell you. Or you see something really embarrassing, but you pretend not to notice, even though you did. That is, to me, what The Age of Innocence is about, that pretense of innocence. . . .You?re measured by who your family is, you know, in the novel. You're a Rushworth and you're not one of the newer immigrants, you?re one of the older families. You didn?t have a quirky relative, a funny aunt who married too often, or your aunt didn?t dress you funny as a kid at the funeral.  And all these things, your behavior, and what happened long ago are never forgotten.  In this society that Edith Wharton talks about, all of this determines who you are throughout your life. 

To learn more about Edith Wharton and her works, visit The Age of Innocence page on The Big Read website.



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